Online Learning

Online Learning

Updated: 9/22/20

The University of Washington transitioned to an online education model in light of COVID-19. Classes and instruction will be offered remotely throughout spring quarter. The College of Engineering is providing the following resources and guidance to support remote education.

Resources for students

Our faculty and staff are committed to supporting students in the pursuit of their degrees as we navigate this challenging time. The resources below are tailored toward the unique opportunities and experiences of engaging in online learning. If you haven't already, please also review the “Autumn quarter frequently asked questions” distributed by the University of Washington.

Best practices for successful online learning:

  • Turn on Canvas notifications to ensure you receive alerts when there are changes or posts in Canvas.
  • Learn how to find and submit assignments on Canvas.
  • Check your UW email at least twice a day, setting up email forwarding if necessary.
  • Familiarize yourself with Zoom. Zoom Pro is now available to all current students, faculty, and staff.
  • If your instructor uses Poll Everywhere, sign in to the application with your NetID to sync your responses with Canvas.
  • Set up a distraction-free workspace and set aside time to focus.

Resources for instructors and TAs

The College of Engineering is committed to supporting all instructors and TAs as they navigate the practices and tools that contribute to online learning. 

Engineering educators are becoming increasingly aware of the gap between the equitable, inclusive education we aspire to provide and the realities that many minoritized students in our courses and departments experience. Teaching with explicit inclusion of all students means attending to teaching and assessments methods, content, and learning environment and community, as detailed in the sections below. To do all of this well requires more than just an understanding of learning sciences fundamentals; good teaching is necessary but not sufficient for true inclusion and equity. We must also work toward better understanding the systemic privileges and disadvantages—present and historical—experienced by certain groups of people in our society. A direct consequence of these privileges and disadvantages is that equal treatment results in inequitable experiences.

Further resources on inclusive teaching practices:

Resources like offer opportunities to integrate course content that counters historically biased representation. Real-world relevance reliably boosts student interest and motivation, but the real world is not monolithic. Students bring a wide range of experiences and interests to a course, so boost motivation by engaging students in sharing their experiences and interests and relating them to course topics.

Reflecting on ourselves as instructors and learning about current and historical societal context take real time and effort. By committing to engaging in this reflecting and learning with humility, being honest about what we still have to learn and apologizing for inevitable missteps, we model inclusion and professionalism for our students.

Clear prioritization of learning outcomes can inform your use of technologies and will help you be successful and efficient.

Focusing on your course’s most important components, select the tools you intend to use for class sessions, student interaction, and collaboration. Try to keep things simple; for most courses, Canvas and Zoom will suffice. (If you want class recordings to be saved for more than 90 days, you can transfer them to Panopto.) Courses with lab or project components will probably require substantial modifications (further guidance below).

For technical assistance, turn to UW IT’s Learning Technologies staff, who offer regular office hours, workshops, and consultations. Their website includes extensive documentation on Zoom and Canvas, including information about Zoom integration into Canvas.

Update your syllabus for online course delivery.

Set up your Canvas site.

Review course materials to ensure they’re accessible Canvas has a tool called Ally that can help. UW Accessible Technology is a good resource.

Introduce yourself to and learn about your students at the start of the quarter. Research shows that connecting with students is among the best ways to promote academic success, in part because it can increase students’ sense of belonging.

  • Welcome students and introduce yourself and course staff with a video or message with photos. Remark on why you are interested in the course subject matter, which can boost motivation. In smaller courses/sections, use a tool like Google Slides and invite each student to contribute a slide with their photo and some info about themselves. Survey students to find out what name (and pronunciation) and gender pronouns they prefer people to use when speaking to/about them. Given the pandemic and social/political circumstances, invite them to share any concerns they have about succeeding in your course.
  • In the same survey, find out what time zone they are in and whether they have access to computing and network capabilities in a space with minimal distractions for participating in course activities online. (sample wording for survey items)
  • Especially if recent offerings of prerequisite courses have been disrupted, assess students’ preparation for your course. Consider assembling a diagnostic quiz by selecting relevant questions from prerequisite courses’ exams. Then, administer the quiz with nominal credit or credit for completion, framing it as a way for you and your students to identify what to review early in the quarter.

Work with your TAs to clarify roles and communication expectations. Find out who has expertise with the tools you intend to use, and have them engage in training and practice, as needed. Share relevant suggestions from this resource with your team.

Use Canvas Announcements to keep your students up-to-date. Instruct them to configure notifications accordingly.

Maintain an accurate Canvas gradebook.

Zoom Pro is available to all current students, faculty, and staff at the UW. For live lecture and/or discussion sections, Zoom enables online meetings of unlimited duration with up to 300 participants (with the option to upgrade for more participants). Record your class sessions so that students are able to review them later. Learn how to use Zoom and how it integrates with Canvas.

Live lectures should be conducted at the assigned class days/times in the time schedule.

If you are new to administering web conferencing, have a TA who is more familiar with the tool serve as a co-host, allowing you to focus on engaging students, while they attend to technical details like polls, muting students, and fielding questions over typed chat. (Note that with Zoom only the primary host, not a co-host or alternative host, can manage breakouts.)

Asynchronous: Zoom can also be used to record supplemental videos for on-demand viewing (e.g., demos, assignment feedback). Unless you need features that only Panopto or another recording tool offers, just using Zoom is simpler for you and your students.

If you normally teach using a board or document camera, see the supplemental FAQ entry about options on Zoom.

Whether synchronous or asynchronous, avoid long periods (more than 15 minutes or so) of non-interactive lecture. See expanded guidance on engaging students below.

In the interest of accessibility, use Google Slides’ captioning, PowerPoint captions, or a web-based tool like Web Captioner. Zoom cloud recordings also provide a transcript, but quality depends on source audio. There are many reasons why students might have trouble hearing the audio portion of live/recorded video, and students for whom English is a second language will also benefit. Test automated captioning for quality before teaching, especially if you are using a lot of technical vocabulary.

  • Note that automatic captioning, though improving, is not accurate enough to serve as an accommodation for students who are deaf or hard of hearing. For students who need accommodations, work with Disability Resources for Students to arrange for a human live captioner or remote sign language interpreter.

Safeguard your Zoom sessions against uninvited disruptions (“ZoomBombing”) by distributing Zoom meeting invitations/IDs to only your students and staff and following UW IT’s guidance on Zoom settings.

At the start of the quarter, communicate expectations around respectful, engaged, collaborative discussion. For courses with more discussion, consider engaging students in a group exercise to formulate guidelines together. See University of Michigan’s resource for excellent guidance and examples.

For effective learning and intrinsic motivation to attend class, interweave active engagement and comprehension checkpoints into synchronous mini-lectures to help ensure students understand and retain what you are teaching. For the time spent, pausing for questions is usually less effective than posing an appropriately focused, short-answer or multiple-choice question that efficiently assesses comprehension.

Use Zoom's interactive features such as virtual hand-raising, breakouts

For small-group activities/discussion, focus your time preparing clear, focused practice problems and discussion prompts that will help students achieve high-priority learning outcomes. These activities should help both you and your students assess whether they are meeting your expectations and provide students with timely, precise, constructive feedback to support their success.

For instance, after teaching a skill and modeling it (by working through an example), engage students in a similar practice problem to help them assess their understanding and readiness to move on.

To motivate participation, be clear up front about what students should do during breakouts, including how they should prepare for reporting out afterwards. With all but the simplest, shortest breakout activities, you should provide instructions outside of Zoom (e.g., a separate web document), not just on a slide that you are screen sharing. This is because your shared screen will not be visible to students in breakout rooms, and students, being only human, inevitably forget instruction details.

To help keep certain students from being excluded, consider giving students a brief period to think individually before group discussion.

Offer as many distinct modes for students to ask questions as you can manage (possibly with help from a TA): synchronously by voice, text chat, Poll Everywhere, office hours; asynchronously by online forum, email, anonymous web form.

Introduce yourself to and learn about your students at the start of the quarter. (See above, under Preparing for online courses.)

Encourage students to update their UW Zoom profiles to include a photo of their face and join meetings logged in with their NetIDs. Consider allowing students to rename themselves in-meeting so that they can display their preferred name and gender pronoun, and you and your staff can do the same.

Open your Zoom class session early and keep the session open for some time after class to chat and interact with students. Saying hi and “how are you” individually will almost always elicit at least a brief response, even if over audio only. Research suggests informal interactions can contribute to student engagement and civility.

With the pandemic, economic distress, racial violence, social unrest, political tension, and natural disasters, take a moment to publicly acknowledge that we are all facing myriad challenges and stressors that inevitably impact our experiences as instructors and students.

  • Be watchful (with TA help) about student engagement in your course, and inquire with concern about well-being and success when you notice repeated occasions when students are late for or miss class sessions or deadlines.
  • Be proactive in reaching out supportively to minoritized students. All too often, prior course experiences have led to such students feeling less of a sense of belonging.
  • Be aware of how impactful a genuine interest in student well-being and success can be. Taking a little time to actively listen to and bear witness to a student’s struggles, as well as celebrating their successes, can affect decisions to remain in your course or even in engineering altogether.

Consider providing some assignment feedback in audio/video format. See advice published by the Chronicle on feedback with technology and learn about Canvas SpeedGrader’s media comments feature.

Incorporate small-group active learning into class sessions (details above, under “Engaging students during class”) and encourage students to turn on their cameras in breakout rooms.

If you and/or your TAs can commit to monitoring and responding, threaded online discussion can be an effective way for students to get questions answered by both the teaching team and their peers, especially in large courses. As with synchronous discussion, make sure to establish positive norms and pose clear discussion prompts that are focused on high-priority learning outcomes. (See above, under “Engaging students during class”.) See University of Michigan’s detailed guidance for more.

To avoid the negative impact on motivation and achievement associated with individual competition, support student collaboration and clarify expectations regarding individual work and academic integrity. Facilitate study group formation and provide relevant guidance. Avoid grading schemes like curving (#7 in this detailed discussion of method tradeoffs) that can pit students against each other and allow a small number of bad actors to negatively impact the grades of ethical students.

See also: “Student-Student Interactions” section of the University of Michigan’s Inventory of Inclusive Teaching Strategies.

As with in-person labs, consider assigning pre-lab readings/exercises with an online quiz to ensure students are appropriately prepared for lab.

For labs where the primary learning outcomes are about analyzing/interpreting data and integrating theory, consider providing data (e.g., as generated in a previous course offering) and refocusing the assignment to analysis and reporting. Identify the top-priority learning objectives for a given lab, using this handout as a guide.

For labs where the priority learning outcomes concern experimental procedure, your options include video, virtual, and DIY labs.

  • Provide demo video of the lab procedure with detailed explanations.
  • Explore whether your lab can be done virtually/online, referring to the catalog of options co-maintained by Ken Yasuhara (UW ET&L) and LeighAnn Tomaswick of Kent State University.
  • For labs with simpler equipment and procedural requirements, consider adapting them so that students can conduct them at home. This might require that some equipment and materials be shipped to students. Appropriate lab kits might even be available commercially.
  • IMPORTANT SAFETY NOTE: The College of Engineering does not require, support, or endorse any hazardous remote course activity or assignments. This includes, but is not limited to, soldering (even with lead-free solder), working with chemicals, and using power tools. Courses must not require any lab/project work of this kind; students’ grades must be independent of whether they do any such work. If students elect to do such work, the University of Washington does not support or endorse this work in any way, and we cannot be responsible for their safety.

For labs whose emphasis is on experimental design, consider giving students a research question to pursue and having them formulate a corresponding experimental procedure (or critique/augment/correct a provided draft). Consider following this up by having a TA carry out the student-authored procedure, with students watching via web conferencing, and providing students with the collected data. This parallels industry practice in chemical engineering, where different people are responsible for designing an experiment and operating equipment.

Many components of projects/capstones can be shifted online via web conferencing, collaborative authoring tools (e.g., Google Docs/Sheets/Slides), and tools for recording and publishing audio and video recordings. These components include client and mentor meetings, proposals/pitches, virtual poster galleries, design, evaluation/test plans, reflection on learning, and online portfolios of design artifacts and other project documents.

Hands-on design and fabrication are more likely to require rethinking. As with experimental labs, some of these activities can be adapted so that students can conduct them at home. This might require that some equipment and materials be shipped to students. For some project domains, the focus could shift to mock-ups and low-fidelity prototyping with widely available craft materials (e.g., cardboard, clay) or illustrations (e.g., drawings, SketchUp 3-D models).

To help ensure that your project teams function successfully, consider having each team draw up a contract early in the quarter. Similarly, have them agree on criteria for peer review up front and engage them in providing each other feedback at least twice during the quarter: once about one third or half way through the project duration for formative purposes and nominal credit, and again at the end with implications on individual team members’ grades.

Hold regular online office hours on Zoom using the Waiting Room feature.

A waiting room allows for flexibility with meeting students in groups or one at a time, by admitting students from and sending students to the waiting room as you see fit.

In general, for the sake of connecting with your students and helping them connect with each other, we encourage you to meet with groups during office hours, allowing them to benefit from hearing discussion of each others’ questions, especially in large courses. Matters that warrant more privacy can be handled by appointment.

Early in the quarter, make a point of encouraging attending an office hour. Consider inviting students to a specific office hour in small groups. If you offer participation credit or require an office hour attendance, make sure to also schedule them based on student availability and offer flexibility. See a Tomorrow’s Professor post on this topic for concise, high-quality guidance.

See UW IT’s page Recommendations for conducting quizzes and exams online.

Provide multiple opportunities for both you and your students to check whether they are meeting expected learning outcomes. Consider frequent low-stakes or no-credit quizzes, in and out of class. CTL offers guidance on other alternatives to high-stakes exams.

Early in the course, have students complete a no-credit practice exam/quiz that involves all of the question types and exam-taking mechanics you intend to employ later in the quarter. (E.g., if your students are able to use a smartphone scanning app, they might be able to submit written responses like free-body diagrams to a File Upload question in Canvas.) This gives both you and your students a chance to notice and adapt to exam design/administration problems.

During the exam, make yourself available for questions and have a communication channel for broadcasting clarifications/corrections (e.g., Zoom).

Consider measures to disincentivize and prevent the simplest forms of cheating.

  • Design questions that are similar in format and difficulty to those students have seen in instruction, practiced in homework, and received feedback on. Avoid reusing questions exactly as they were given in past exams; even superficial modifications (e.g., changing numerical constants) are helpful.
  • Accept that the exam will effectively be open-resources (textbook, notes, web) and design questions accordingly. Expand the guidance on open-book assessment on this page for details.
  • Consider a larger number of shorter, more focused mini-exams/quizzes, vs. one or two high-stakes exams, to reduce student stress and provide both you and students with more frequent measures of their standing in the course. This also moderates the effects of unexpected exam design/administration problems (e.g., network outages).
  • Avoid grading schemes like curving that can pit students against each other and allow a small number of bad actors to negatively impact the grades of ethical students.
  • As prep time permits, use a tool like Canvas Quizzes that supports randomized question variation (e.g., response choice order for multiple choice, numeric constants, question groups).
  • Consider having students pledge adherence to an honor code. Note that research recommends an honor code that is formal and detailed and references consequences of code violation.

For more details about administering exams online, see the supplemental FAQ.